Monday, April 18, 2016

Night Poetry: Reading The Four Quartets

I wasn't planning to come, but I changed my mind and I won't regret it. Sheldon's roommate Chris wanted to spend the evening reading the entirety of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets aloud. My excuse for my initial refusal was homework. But eventually I realised that I never actually get much done of a Sunday night anyway. Sunday nights I usually get what Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's terms the "mean reds" where "you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of". Except I usually know what I am afraid of: the week to come. But anyway... I sprinted through the muggy air to their apartment to tell them I wanted to join in after all. We walked to the big lawn in front of our college. We settled under a yellow Narnia-style lamp. We had only one copy of the poem, which we passed between the three of us, taking turns reading out loud. 


I let the words slide into my ears as I listened and lay on my back in the grass. Because the poem is so long my thoughts occasionally wandered off. A phrase would trigger my imagination and images would form in my head.  For instance I pictured in my head the way Eliot talks about a pool filled not with water but light in the first Quartet entitled Burnt Norton.

Much of the poem was too complex for me to grasp fully without having studied it. But it was clear to me that it is about Time. It is about the way that time destroys and decays, but also about the way that God redeems it. In the second section of The Dry Salvages, the third Quarto, Eliot writes:

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?

(The Dry Salvages, lines 440-445)

This stanza seems hopeless and relentless. Pain and wailing wash like waves again and again. But then later at the very end of the fourth Quartet, Little Gidding, comes this:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well`
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(Little Gidding, lines 879-886)

This section again I do not fully understand, but I derive from peace from the words: "All manner of things shall be well". This suggests a place where the thirst and pain evoked in the stanza above has faded and Time makes sense. Time has been redeemed. It is no longer the fire that consumes the beauty of the rose, but the two are beautifully wed.

I don't claim to understand this poem. I hope I haven't completely botched it for you. I want to convey a sense of what it was like read it last night. I encourage you to do likewise. Perhaps like me, it will spur you on to study it further and begin to work out what it means. Maybe you will choose another poem and allow it to feed your ears and your soul.

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